Unsung heroes

Working for the state gets a bad press. But Public Sector Jobs Week (24-27 January) hopes to change all that by encouraging employees
in the sector to take pride in their work. Jo Faragher investigates.

When most of us were nursing a New Year hangover on the first day of 2006, it was easy to forget those who had dutifully turned up for work – an army of public sector workers, from refuse collectors to hospital porters, who all did their bit to clean up the debris from the night before and keep our public services moving.

Unfortunately, these jobs don’t always get the press they deserve. Although public sector workers make a valuable contribution to the social infrastructure, many regard these jobs as unglamorous, badly paid and dogged by bureaucracy.

So it’s hardly surprising that government workers have a morale problem. A recent survey by Mori and the Work Foundation found that 17% of public sector workers were critical of the services they provided, compared to just 6% of private sector workers. And more than a quarter identified ‘higher morale and more motivated staff’ as the most important factors to help them do a better job.

In a bid to raise the profile of public sector work, government employment organisations have once again teamed up to launch the second annual Public Sector Jobs Week, which will run between 23 and 27 January. During this week, a range of national, regional and professional media will be working with the Society of Personnel Officers in Government Services (Socpo), the Employers’ Organisation for Local Government and the NHS to promote the good – and often unnoticed – public sector work all over the UK. The week’s events will include a conference on 27 January aimed at HR directors in the public sector.

HR professionals have the power to change the poor perception of public sector work, according to Socpo president, Jan Parkinson.

“Some of the brightest and the best work in the public sector,” she says. “We just don’t sell this well enough. Where else do you get such a wide range of opportunities?”

A career in the public sector could encompass anything from being a road crossing patrol to the chief executive of a local authority, she says.

Martin Stein, senior consultant at the Employers’ Organisation, agrees: “There aren’t many occupations you could rule out in local government. Accountancy and media studies are very popular areas to go into, but many people haven’t considered getting into [these areas] in the public sector.”

Public Sector Jobs Week also aims to tackle particular areas of skills shortage including social care, trading standards, environmental health and planning. So where exactly does the image problem lie?

Gideon Skinner, research director at pollsters Mori, highlights two major factors. “Public sector workers are becoming disgruntled at the same time as the public at large is becoming more critical about public services and we should not be surprised if there is a link,” he says. “While public sector workers are more likely to think they make a positive contribution to society than those who work in the private sector, they are less confident that they are viewed as customer-focused or quality-driven, two areas where senior management could perhaps provide a clearer vision for those who work in public services.”

One of the challenges of finding staff to fill public sector roles is the low level of unemployment in the UK. In a market where candidates can pick and choose, public sector employers need to make themselves more attractive to potential employees, says Alan Warner, corporate director of people and property at Hertfordshire County Council.

Warner works in a county where unemployment is virtually non-existent and one-fifth of the local population commutes into London to work. To boost its profile as an employer, the council ran a ‘Hertfordshire Heroes’ campaign to promote public sector work, urging local residents to “put something back into the community and enjoy a rewarding role”.

“People have a lot of options when it comes to employment, and generally speaking these jobs aren’t glamorous, so they’re not seen as an option,” Warner explains. “HR professionals are at the forefront of this. We add value to an organisation and need to generate interest in this industry.”

One of the ways HR can make public sector work more attractive is by dispelling the myth that government working practices are out of date, adds Parkinson.

“HR can do a lot to make the public sector appear as modern employers,” she says. “In equal opportunities, for example, HR professionals lead the way.”

Government authorities are also working hard to modernise their recruitment processes by offering more online.

Public Sector Jobs Week will certainly help to create more pride in working for government, but Stein urges HR professionals in the sector to promote the vast range of jobs on offer all year round. “We should celebrate working in the public sector. You’re doing a worthwhile job improving the lives of people where you live,” he says. HR is at the forefront of this push to give public sector work the more positive image it deserves.

Public Sector Jobs Week opportunities

During Public Sector Jobs Week, Reed Business Information, the publisher of Personnel Today, is offering a 10% discount on print recruitment advertisements in all of the journals listed below:
Personnel Today, Community Care, New Scientist, Caterer & Hotelkeeper, Computer Weekly, Estates Gazette, Contract Journal, Electronics Weekly, Optician, Travel Weekly, Flight International, Occupational Health, Training & Coaching Today, Hairdressers’ Journal and Health & Beauty Salon.

To find out more or to take advantage of the offer please call our dedicated Public Sector Jobs Week telephone hotline on 020 8652 4431.

Case study: Sarah Nicholas, Hertfordshire County Council

When Sarah Nicholas took a part-time job as a domestic assistant at care home St Michael’s House in Welwyn Garden City, she never dreamed that one day she would return there as the manager.

After her children were born, she combined work as a mobile hairdresser with shifts as a hospital cleaner. Getting to know the staff and residents got her thinking about making a move into care work herself.

“When a vacancy for a care assistant came up, I thought ‘I could do that’,” she says. “I love working with people and getting involved in supporting them to achieve things for themselves. It makes such a difference to their lives.”

That first job led to others – as a residential social worker in a children’s home, an assistant manager in a care home for children with learning disabilities, and deputy manager of a residential service for adults with learning disabilities.

As she moved up the career ladder, Hertfordshire County Council offered her plenty of training to help her on her way. She now holds a postgraduate certificate in management, Level 4 NVQ accreditation in care management, and is working for further qualifications.

“Training is something that the county council is really good at,” she said. “Everybody starting here goes on an induction course and there are plenty of in-house training courses to help people do their jobs.”

It was this training plus experience that resulted in Sarah becoming a manager herself. She’s been doing the job for five years now and she loves it.

“It’s not just about managing the service so that the people who come here get the support they need, but also about helping and encouraging the staff – that’s just as important,” she says.

Comments are closed.